Donald Trump says he was just being “sarcastic” when he asked Russia to conduct cyberespionage against his political opponent on Wednesday. “Of course, I was being sarcastic,” Trump told Fox News Wednesday night about his much-discussed request. “And frankly, they don’t even know if it’s Russia, if it’s China, if it’s someone else. Who knows who it is.”
Here, again, is the quote that got Trump in trouble in the first place: “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the GOP nominee said, referring to those messages that Hillary Clinton deemed personal and deleted from her private server before turning over her State Department emails for archiving. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens. That will be next.”
Haha! Ha … ha? Wait, I don’t get it.
The fact Trump felt the need to clean up after himself at all is somewhat surprising, and is indicative of just how swift and strong the bipartisan backlash was on this one. The celebrity businessman prides himself on never apologizing or admitting a mistake, and while he isn’t doing either here, his explanation is the closest thing to a clear-cut no-that’s-not-my-position clarification we’ve seen from the man in some time. More often, Trump barrels ahead into controversies of his own making for a few days without providing the least bit of clarity on the situation before ultimately deciding that he either never said what he said in the first place, or that he didn’t mean what everyone heard.
To pick but a few examples from many, that’s more or less what he did after: inciting violence at his political rallies; suggesting that women who have abortions should be “punished”; and saying that, under his watch, the United States wouldn’t automatically come to the aid of its NATO allies. It’s a similar script this time around; he’s just reading from it a little faster.
If his comment about Russian hackers really was intended as a joke, it clearly missed. His own campaign didn’t even seem to grasp it in the moment. Shortly after Trump spoke, his team scrambled to do damage control by claiming that the candidate wasn’t specifically “calling on anyone to intervene,” as one senior aide put it to NBC News, only for anyone who already had the Clinton emails to turn them over to authorities—a reading that clearly didn’t line up with Trump’s actual words, joking or not. If Trump’s sense of humor was lost on his own team, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t also lost in translation when word arrived at the Kremlin.
Trump wasn’t joking or being sarcastic; he was just being Trump. He was speaking without thinking and didn’t grasp the full implications of what he was saying in the moment or even its immediate aftermath. It’s possible that now that enough people have explained the situation to him, he understands the danger of calling on a geopolitical rival to conduct cyberespionage against your political opponent. That, though, should make us all sleep only marginally better given this time next year there is a legitimate chance this man could be performing his belligerent and ill-informed improv in the White House.